Easily last year's most maligned Oscar-nominated film, The Reader was even openly mocked during the big opening Oscar number as Hugh Jackman sang about each film only to be surrounded by a bizarre array of dancers for The Reader segment as he sang, "The Reader, I never saw The Reader." The funny part was that he wasn't alone. Mostly criticized as a perfect example of Oscar's predilection toward Holocaust tales, many have theorized that this actually gained Oscar's notice due to the passing of two of its producers, legendary writer/directors Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack. I submit, however, that it stars Kate Winslet, an actress passed up for her Oscar more times than most actors ever dream of being nominated. Surprise. She finally won the long overdue award.
Watching it again on DVD it is easy to see why it failed to connect with mainstream audiences. Adapted from the novel of the same name, The Reader follows all the classic conventions that work in a novel but not a film, chiefly that of inaction and regret over failing to act. Each act represents a different period of time during the life of the film's protagonist, Michael (played both by Ralph Fiennes and David Kross), with each act ending in a terrible anti-climax. Every time the film seems to be coming to a head, the characters instead take the coward's way out, the results of which only serving to further ruin their lives. That's exactly the type of thing you expect from a novel. But the constant dashing of dramatic tension doesn't play so well on the screen.
When viewed in context of the book and what it is trying to say, this structure is a fantastic metaphor for the German generational gap in understanding the Holocaust and the actions of their parents. But as a narrative it is a slow series of unresolved events that will frustrate the average moviegoer. It doesn't help that the first act of the film is almost entirely spent in bed, watching the somewhat creepy romance between a 36-year-old woman and a 15-year-old boy. But the performances are incredible, and the material is riveting enough that it has many fans and acclaim outside of the Oscars.
Fans of the film will delight in the special features on this disc. First and foremost is a whopping 40 minutes of deleted scenes. While I do not think these scenes should be cut back in some gargantuan director's cut (as the film already moves at a glacial pace), I do think they are required viewing for fans or viewers trying to grasp what the film is about. Everything cut adds layers of understanding, explanation, and heartbreak as we get even more context for what is going on, from small bits of information like the fate of Sophie -- the high school girl infatuated with Michael in his youth -- to a few nuggets of information that show us that Hanna followed Michael's life from afar even when we thought she'd abandoned him. There's some powerful stuff in there. My only complaint is that it is all out of order when played in its entirety, and I just happen to be a fan of deleted scenes being shown in order of when they would appear in the film.
Additionally there is a 22-minute making-of, a ten-minute interview with (and about) young German actor David Kross, a five-minute segment on young American composer Nico Muhly, a short segment on the production designer (a German expatriate who left Germany for the same reasons discussed in the film), and finally the now somewhat common stuck-in-the-makeup-chair segment -- this time with Kate Winslet showing how she was aged 40 years in the film. These are all solid and what you've come to expect from extras like this, but they all pale in comparison to the quality of the deleted material.
The Reader is available now from The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment.